Sixty years ago, in August 1954, two young writers were passing the Royal Academy in a London taxi. One of them, Hugh Thomas, later to become an internationally recognised historian, chair of a centre-right think-tank and a member of the House of Lords, mentioned to his companion, Paul Johnson, a distinguished pundit in the making, a newly fashionable idea among the intelligentsia: the Establishment.
The following year, the defection to the Soviet Union of the double agents Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean was the talk of the town. Another young journalist, Henry Fairlie, alleged in the Spectator that the Establishment had protected the spies and this provoked a furious row as society figures sought to distance themselves from such accusations. But the mud stuck and the Establishment became part of the British vernacular, synonymous with vested interests, cover-ups and those in the know.
The literature of the Establishment is part of its history. Books such as Anthony Sampson’s Anatomy of Britain (1962), Jeremy Paxman’s Friends in High Places (1990) and Ferdinand Mount’s The New Few (2012) track Britain’s political journey from the postwar social welfare consensus through the free-market years of the later 20th century and into the disastrous age of financialisation. Their tone has grown steadily bleaker but in Owen Jones’s new book the dark gets darker still.
Jones is an angry man. Activists have shaped his views and he is one himself, working with organisations such as the People’s Assembly, a trade union-backed anti-austerity movement. With 210,000 followers on Twitter, a regular column in the Guardian and frequent media appearances, he has a powerful reach.
The object of the anger in his new book is, of course, the Establishment, which he defines as “the institutional and intellectual means by which a wealthy elite defends its interests in a democracy”. Jones believes that the contemporary Establishment is more powerful than its predecessors because it has an ideological core. This is the free-market consensus developed initially after the second world war by followers of the economist Friedrich Hayek and disseminated over the following decades by those whom Jones dubs “outriders”. Margaret Thatcher and her successors in 10 Downing Street implemented these ideas, thus presenting the former outriders with the levers of power.
The consequences as revealed in this book generate feelings of shock, shame and, yes, anger at the society we live in. Jones describes a country in which inequality has been stretched to levels unimaginable in the postwar decades, in which petty benefits cheats are sent to prison while corporate tax avoiders receive sweetheart deals and where, as a result of the outsourcing of state services, helping the needy is subordinated to making money.
Discussion of these issues rarely appears in a mainstream media “controlled by a very small number of politically motivated owners”, writes Jones. Policing is entrusted to a force that has been given more powers despite a reputation for cover-ups and discrimination. The country is governed by careerist politicians who are too close to the corporate sector to give due consideration to those with differing views.
The irony is that this supposedly free market is, as Jones points out, “completely dependent on the largesse of the state”. Bailed-out banks; state-funded infrastructures that private utilities exploit; a state-educated workforce and supplements to bring wages up to subsistence level are just some examples.
Jones may be right to say that “future generations will surely look back with a mixture of astonishment and contempt at how British society is currently organized” but the power of the argument is weakened by the manner in which it is made.
Such is the tone of the author’s descriptions that we often know what is coming when a new character is introduced. “Patrician”? “Oozing a bemused disinterest”? A “striking perma-tan”? Stand by for an Establishment acolyte. “Fresh-faced twentysomethings [who] could easily pass as university students”? Meet the goodies. Such bias is disappointing from an author who in a previous book, Chavs (2011), criticised the stereotyping of the working class and who regards prejudice as one of the Establishment’s deadly sins.
This is symptomatic of a deeper issue for, just like the Establishment he despises, the author fails to tackle head on competing arguments or inconvenient evidence. In evaluating the post-Thatcher settlement, any balanced view would also critique the system that preceded it. The managed economy of the 1970s disintegrated into the chaos of high inflation and disruptive industrial action and many economists think that radical change was essential. Jones, however, believes that in the 1970s “trade unions were wrongly scape-goated for Britain’s economic troubles” and that the wave of strikes that shook Britain in the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent were merely attempts “to win pay settlements that reflected the cost of living”. These and other sweeping, controversial assertions require substantiation if they are to land.
The same is true of the proposed remedy: a manifesto that includes renationalising the public utilities, reintroducing capital controls and new laws to strengthen the unions. This programme does in fact contain some good ideas. But when Jones describes it as a “modest attempt to reassert democracy”, he is falling under the spell of his own rhetoric rather than providing the kind of dispassionate, internationally grounded analysis that we so desperately need.